Is it Time to Pull the ‘Parent Trigger’?

December 14, 2010; Source: Washington Post | Where one stands on the issue of charter schools is often an emotional flash point in the debate about the future of public education. In California, a political odd couple—Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa—are defending a law called the “parent trigger” law, through which a conventional public school can be converted to a charter school if a majority of parents from a school (or its feeder schools) sign a petition.

The first application of this law is occurring in Compton, Calif. concerning the future of the relatively small K-3 McKinley Elementary. The nonprofit group organizing parents in favor of the conversion, Parent Revolution, says it has gotten the signatures of 62 percent of the parents, but Governor Schwarzenegger has charged that its opponents are intimidating parents to withdraw their support of the charter conversion.

On the other side, some parents are trying to rescind their signatures, claiming that Parent Revolution pressured and intimidated them for their support or misled them. Parent Revolution’s board was chaired—until December 15—by Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot Public Schools, an increasingly well known charter school operator known, unlike many others, for being pro-union.

Longtime community organizer, Larry Ferlazzo, now a high school English teacher in Sacramento, says that the parent trigger law “provides a huge incentive to charter school operators to parachute into communities and engage in what community organizers call ‘slash and burn’ organizing” through external organizing groups like Parent Revolution. Parent Revolution has between eight and ten staff working on the McKinley organizing campaign and is reportedly funded by a number of big foundations—Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Ferlazzo suggests that Parent Revolution worked “under the radar” and made “their first contact with school officials apparently . . . when the petitions were delivered.”

This is not a liberal vs. conservative controversy. Barr is a co-founder of Rock the Vote and has solid Democratic credentials. So do other Parent Revolution board members, and of, course Mayor Villaraigosa.

There could be national ramifications from this controversy. Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel appears to favor the parent trigger there. A New Jersey state legislator has just introduced a parent trigger law for consideration. It turns out, the fate of an elementary school with some 300 pupils could affect education policy in many different states.—Rick Cohen